The Buddha stressed the urgency for change saying that the human situation is like a man whose house is on fire. What was true for the individual then is becoming increasingly true for our collective existence today. Even a superficial investigation into the causes of the crisis, as called for by the Second Noble Truth, will reveal that the collective behaviour of humanity and the impact it is having on living systems is the cause. The Earth is under tremendous stress, and we are clearly overstepping the limits of her life-support systems to cleanse and balance the pollution and preserve nature as we know it in all its beauty and diversity. Meanwhile the consumer society with its dire attendant social and ecological impact goes largely unquestioned and mostly unchallenged.
The Third Noble Truth reassures us that a cure is possible, that we can arrive at an awakened plenitude not only for ourselves but more importantly for all beings. As Tai Situ Pa put it, we can fully awaken to the `perfect embodiment of universal wisdom, great compassionate love and personal power to help whomsoever is open to that help.’ So in our analysis of the ecological crisis we need to recognise that a cure to ecological ills is possible. Indeed in some ways this has already been revealed by the Gaia Hypothesis which states that the Earth is a self-regulating mechanism which always tends towards balance and harmony. The problem is that Gaia may just harmonise humans right out of the picture! So from the human perspective we need to look at how we can live on the Earth in a way which will sustain and support all living systems. But by identifying ourselves more with Gaia than as individual consumers, we will be less motivated by fear of our own impermanence as a species, and able to fully respond to the situation we face from a place of deep connectivity.
Buddhism can be a big help in this regard because it trains us in a habitual attitude of reverence towards all life. The teachings counsel us that we are not really separate from all beings and that the happiness we all seek lies, ultimately, in the happiness of all beings. This is the Fourth Noble Truth in its essence: the path that must be cultivated. By training our minds in the six paramitas, or perfections, our being literally becomes the path, and all our actions spontaneously shift from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.
The first of the paramitas is generosity, which can also be translated as liberality or openness. This has many aspects to it but can involve the giving of resources, shelter, comfort, space, help, and so on, at a very practical and physical level. It can also be the willingness to `hear the cries of the world’ and to respond with wisdom and compassion. Ultimately it is the recognition that one is not a separate `skin enclosed ego’, that there is no inherent `self’ or `other’, no `giver’, no `gift’ and `no one who receives’.
The second paramita, right conduct or ethics, is not to kill, cheat or steal, to avoid unwholesome actions and to develop wholesome attitudes. Ultimately it is to practise restraining selfishness and to find positive ways in which to support the welfare of all sentient beings. Right livelihood is a key aspect of this. In his book, Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher said that `Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants, but in the purification of the human character.’ Right conduct means noninvolvement with those activities which are contributing to the suffering of the world. They require one `to live simply so that others might simply live!’ Such a lifestyle would be, as Bill Devall said, `Simple in means but rich in ends.’ Although we would consume less, we would be happier knowing that our lives are in harmony with all living systems.
The third paramita is forbearance which is also described as patience, the opposite of anger. Ultimately it is to have more patience than the mountains and rivers themselves, indeed of Gaia herself. It is to have the patience of the Dharmakaya [body of truth]. The problems we face are vast, endless, complex, daunting—without patience, the game is up before it begins.
The fourth paramita counsels us to be strenuous, energetic, and persevering in our efforts. It is one thing to overcome our own denial, take responsibility for the problems, and become part of the solution. It continues to be challenging to live in a society where most people are clearly not doing this.
The fifth paramita highlights the practice of meditation so that we may attain concentration and oneness in order to serve all beings (a.k.a.our true self). It involves perfecting a stable, peaceful mind that is able to concentrate and develop penetrating insight. Thus we can begin to free ourselves from the tendency of the mind to become scattered through the push and pull of craving and aversion and take rest in equanimity. From this firm foundation of a peaceful mind we are able to investigate all the other mental states in ourselves and others so that we can free ourselves from the suffering of conditioned existence.
The Prajnaparamita, or sixth paramita is our ability to rest in this wisdom, and in so doing, give the benefit to others. Just as a smile is infectious, and causes delight in others, so, much more powerfully, our wisdom and compassion shines like a warm and tender light on those around us, and our very being becomes a gift to others.
Published in the August 2002 Buddhism Now as Towards Sustainability.
Colin Moore is an occasional Primary School teacher and a regular teacher of Tibetan Buddhism at the Golden Buddha Centre, Totnes. He was co-manage of Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry in Devon, England.
[The above is to from Mindfulness in the Marketplace, edited by Alan Hunt-Badiner, Parallax Press, October 2002]